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On ‘Rolling Stone’ Covers

A 25th anniversary special remembers the magazine’s standout images

Rolling Stone

Percussionist Ollie Brown with a copy of Rolling Stone magazine in 1975.

Christopher Simon Sykes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What Do Richard Nixon, Ice-T, Mary Tyler Moore and narcs have in common? They’ve all known, in the words of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, “the thrill that’ll gitcha/When you get your picture/On the cover of the Rolling Stone.” (Dr. Hook’s rendition of Shel Silverstein’s song won the band the honor in 1973.) Although it’s hard to picture Nixon as being thrilled (after all, this was during Watergate), appearing on our cover has always been the sign that you’ve arrived in the music industry.

Over the years Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have each graced the cover 17 times, either by themselves or with their band mates or spouses; Bob Dylan has appeared 13 times and Bruce Springsteen 11. But the cover has also featured actors and comedians (Tom Cruise and John Belushi lead the pack with five covers each; tied for second with four each are Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, Michael Douglas, Robin Williams and Steve Martin), as well as politicians, athletes and assorted strays. Some people must consider themselves lucky to have made it once: Think Pat Boone, Sally Struthers, Donnie Osmond.

Our newspaper-style first issue, featuring John Lennon on the cover, was read by several thousand people; the issue you’re holding will be read by nearly 8 million. Since that first double-folded issue, cover subjects have ranged from the MC5 to U2, from the stars of Zabriskie Point to the star of Malcolm X, from Abbie Hoffman in a police cap to Ice-T in a police uniform, from the underground Zap Comix to the underachieving Bart Simpson.

Every picture tells a story: Eric Clapton’s portrait on the preceding page was shot by rock photographer Linda Eastman, who had stolen her first press credentials from the magazine office where she was a receptionist. She went on to become close to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, not to mention Paul McCartney, whom she married in 1969. Annie Leibovitz nearly missed the deadline for her 1976 Linda Ronstadt cover because of an L.A. mudslide; she had to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get the film in. When Bruce Springsteen was shot by Albert Watson for this 1987 cover, he’d topped our annual Readers Poll for a record-setting third straight year. And Axl Rose’s 1992 cover, photographed by Herb Ritts, is something of an hommage to Bob Seidemann’s photo of Janis Joplin adorned in nothing but beads, which we published after her death in 1970.

The following pages are a guide to how far we’ve traveled, along with retrospectives of memorable covers featuring John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. We end with eight covers that have been among our strongest and most poignant issues: our tributes to rockers who have passed on.

Don’t Follow Leaders

Although Rolling Stone has always concentrated on the music first, the very founding of the magazine signified that a new generation had come to the fore with its own political ideas and goals. Our cover choices have ranged from presidential sibling Ted Kennedy, then in the midst of his own run for the presidency, to presidential progeny Tricia Nixon and Jack Ford. (The story on Jack Ford, who had admitted to smoking marijuana — and inhaling — was accompanied by the headline “Why Jack Ford Still Lives With His Parents” — i.e., in the White House.) We discovered the perfect correspondent to separate the leaders from the bottom feeders in the infamous Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who reported on George McGovern’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1972; accompanying him was English illustrator Ralph Steadman. 

A double-dipped wrecking crew that gave new meaning to the expression “political party,” the two went on to cover the Watergate hearings from their base camp in the bar at the Watergate Hotel. Richard Nixon would appear on our cover three times, more than any other politician, and proved to be perfect grist for Thompson: He later dedicated one of his books to Nixon, “who never let me down.” George McGovern, in art as in life, ran second to Nixon with two covers.

Thompson and Steadman reunited this year for the Fear and Loathing in Elko cover. Dr. Thompson endorsed Jimmy Carter in 1976 (with fear and loathing, of course) after hearing the candidate quote both Bob Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr in a speech; the Messianic illustration was by associate art director Greg Scott. The next year, young Carter-administration honchos Hamilton Jordan (then chief of staff) and Jody Powell (Carter’s press secretary) were profiled in a cover story appropriately headlined “White House Whiz Kids.” We marked our move from San Francisco to New York City, in 1977, with Andy Warhol’s rendering of feminist and mayoral candidate Bella Abzug. More recently, Dr. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke, William Greider and Jann Wenner tag-team-interviewed Bill Clinton at Doe’s Eat Place, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Photographer Mark Seliger came along for the cover shoot.

“All the News That Fits” 

That rubric, a play on the New York Times‘ “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has appeared in the magazine since 1969. Over the years, what fits has changed: Our first news cover was “RS 8,” featuring a report on the Monterey Pop Festival. Three issues later, our first concept cover happened quite by accident: Facing rolling printing presses without a cover subject, photographer Baron Wolman came up with the nebulous “Rock Fashion,” which resulted in the most obscure person ever to grace our cover: his wife.

We would move on to early cover stories on drug use in the army, Japanese rock, the 1969 People’s Park insurrection and legalized prostitution. Rolling Stone‘s coverage of Woodstock was indicated by the simple cover line Woodstock: 450,000. Four months and a day later, after Altamont had been hyped elsewhere as Woodstock West, our story had another simple cover line: “Let it Bleed.” Rock & roll, and any concept of the Woodstock Nation, had suddenly become more complicated, and Rolling Stone would go on to publish cover stories on Charles Manson, the Kent State massacre, POWs, Jesus freaks, the National Rifle Association and the Cincinnati Who-concert tragedy.

In 1975, Rolling Stone pulled off the biggest journalistic scoop since the New York Times broke the Pentagon papers: Writers Howard Kohn and David Weir unraveled the inside story of the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. Illustrated with a takeoff of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World by Jamie Putnam, the issue sold out at the newsstand almost instantly (it sold more than any other regular issue of Rolling Stone except the Elvis Presley and John Lennon tributes) and was the lead story on almost every national newscast. Finally, when law-enforcement associations tried to divert attention from the Rodney King controversy by condemning Ice-T and his song “Cop Killer,” we let the rapper talk back in a Rolling Stone interview.

Drawing Power

Though Rolling Stone has been justly celebrated for its photography, throughout our 25 years we’ve published the work of the best illustrators of the time, including Kim Whitesides, Bruce Wolfe and Gilbert Stone, who won a Prix de Rome for his painting before moving into illustrations (such as the Gregg Allman cover he rendered for us in 1973). One of our most visible early contributors was Philip Hays, who illustrated our 1973 Bette Midler cover and is now chairman of the illustration department of the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. His portrait, which evokes what he calls Midler’s “retro Forties look,” was assigned after our art director decided not to use the photos we originally commissioned.

Hays’s favorite cover, however, was his illustration of Eric Clapton in 1974, in which the already-legendary guitarist is depicted seminaked — but in an almost Christ-like manner. “He had just made one of his many comebacks,” Hays says, “and this is about when his fans started saying things like ‘Clapton is God.’ So that’s what I gave them.” Since pictures of Clapton in the pose he was looking for weren’t available, Hays had to reconstruct how Clapton would look: “An awful lot of that illustration,” he says, “was a collage of various friends’ body parts.”

Two issues later, we published a Forties-style illustration by Dave Willardson to accompany a Steely Dan cover story. The band had named itself after a vibrator in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, so Willardson’s airbrushed cover showed a bikini-clad woman riding joyously, arms outstretched, atop a silver vibrator. Art director Mike Salisbury hid the illustration from the rest of the staff until the issue was running on the press. Milton Glaser, the hot illustrator and designer of the early Seventies, was called upon first for our March 2nd, 1972, Dylan cover. In 1975 he returned to portray Stevie Wonder in an illustration that treads the line where funk meets psychedelia.

Jackson Browne reportedly felt that Rolling Stone crossed the line with the painting of him we commissioned from Daniel Maffia; he thought his hand was too big. The courtly painting, however, did much to solidify Browne’s hard-won reputation as a noble, wistful romantic. The very next issue, Maurice Sendak’s whimsical Wild Things jumped off of our Christmastime cover. Sendak, the author of some 70 children’s books, spoke at length in the issue of his inspiration and his recent collaboration with singer-songwriter Carole King on the children’s television program Really Rosie, which King later released as an album.

Robert Grossman, who along with Willardson had helped revive the technique of air-brushing in the mid-Sixties, contributed a series of distinctive, comic portraits of rockers in the Seventies. His caricature of Crosby, Stills and Nash showed them yukking it up at their long-awaited reunion in 1977. Frequent contributor Julian Allen managed to capture Neil Young’s intensity during the historic Rust Never Sleeps tour. Gottfried Helnwein made our day with his 1985 treatment of Clint Eastwood, depicting the actor’s timeless, roughhewn grittiness with the sort of hyperrealism unattainable in photographs; Helnwein would go on to portray James Brown for our cover story on the Godfather of Soul’s legal entanglements in the late Eighties. In 1987, we featured Anita Kunz’s cartoonish image of Michael Jackson (perhaps the future King of Pop’s actual appearance was changing too fast to be photographed for the cover) in an issue that also profiled Gary Larson of Far Side fame.

“All the Nudes that Fit”

The Late Gloria Stavers, editor of 16 magazine, once gave us some good advice: When taking pictures of rock stars, she said, always get them to unbutton the top button of their jeans. As editor and publisher Jann Wenner wrote, “Not only did we get the top button open, we often got them all.” It seems over the years we’ve shown more male skin than female (our Woodstock cover; 1975’s Gregg Allman; 1983’s greased-up, Staying Alive-era John Travolta wearing nothing but a Tarzan-style loincloth).

And we’ve often gone to just plain weird lengths to get the shot we needed. When shooting a bare-chested Peter Frampton cover in 1976, photographer Francesco Scavullo jumped from behind the lens to pinch Frampton’s nipples just before he released the shutter. The tactic produced an arresting startled-deer look.

Despite our notable early nude covers — a story on the book The Art of Sensual Massage; John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins pose — little or no offense was taken until we had the unmitigated gall to pose teen dream David Cassidy reclining nude in the grass for a 1972 cover story. Photographer Annie Leibovitz had managed to convince the Partridge Family star that dropping trou would give him a hipper image. We received some letters from young girls who didn’t believe their idol had pubic hair, and Cassidy’s PR man was rumored to have been fired.

Ten years later, Richard Avedon photographed the 21-year-old actress Nastassia Kinski, who revealed a pubescent sexuality of a different stripe. One thing prevented the cover from being scandalous: her arm. She raised it about three inches for the inside photos. Lisa Bonet, like David Cassidy, was looking for a new image. Then age 20, fresh off The Cosby Show and pregnant, Bonet arrived at the photo shoot fully clothed, her publicist insisting that there be no nude shots. Once Matthew Rolston started shooting, however, her clothes started dropping faster than the camera was clicking. Later, when Bonet learned we weren’t going to run the totally nude shot on the cover (it’s on an inside spread; back issues are available), she came to our offices to try to change our mind. Fully clothed, of course.

Then, more than a year before the hoo-ha about Sex, Steven Meisei’s book of Madonna photographs, Meisel shot Miss Ciccone cross-dressing, making out with women, hanging out with men dressed as women and, for the cover, wearing nothing but garters, heels, heavy makeup and a chair. (Sex, however, has Vanilla Ice.)

And most recently, Mark Seliger’s Red Hot Chili Peppers cover provoked controversy and a few canceled subscriptions. Fortunately for the band’s new younger fans, we’d deleted some stray pubic hair, using a digital retouching process. The same process allowed us to remove recently departed guitarist John Frusciante.

‘Toon In, Turn On

Underground Comic Books began to emerge at around the same time as Rolling Stone. We heralded the phenomenon with a 1968 story featuring Rick Griffin’s Mickey Mouse-like Zap Comix character on the cover and R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural inside. Even earlier, our ninth issue (the first without a photograph on the cover) showed cartoon versions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney by the German poster artist Heinz Edelmann, created for the full-length animated movie Yellow Submarine. (Edelmann’s Yellow Submarine work is often mistaken to be the creation of Peter Max.) In 1971 our Marvel Comics cover, illustrated by Herb Trimpe, depicted an enraged Incredible Hulk in the midst of an energy surge, busting up the Rolling Stone logo and seemingly attempting to break free from the confines of our cover as well as the confines of his trousers.

Marvel’s Stan Lee himself would have envied our cover headlines: “The story the Incredible Hulk Could Not Stop!” and “Spiderman’s Secret Life!”

In 1975, Garry Trudeau’s gonzoid Uncle Duke arrived on the cover after he had been appointed governor of American Samoa. The character infuriated the real Raoul Duke, Hunter Thompson, on whom the character is directly based. (Thompson had once claimed that Democratic party chairman Larry O’Brien had offered him the governorship.) Thompson said of Trudeau, characteristically, “If I ever catch that little bastard, I’ll rip his lungs out.” This would be the first of three Doonesbury-style covers from the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, the other two featuring Trudeau’s Spinal Tap-esque character Jimmy Thudpucker, who in 1978 agreed to sit for a Rolling Stone Interview conducted by Garry Trudeau.

A younger Mr. Natural, Bart Simpson, broke through in 1990. Illustrated by his creator, Matt Groening (who may be the R. Crumb of the age), Bart became our youngest cover subject ever. Ay, Caramba! 

What Were We Thinking?

Who are these people? We challenge any reader to identify all three without looking at their names.

Give up?

Okay, now look at their names and then try to figure out who they are. Don’t worry, it’s not that stuff you smoked a few years ago — they’re just plain obscure. They weren’t the only peripheral characters to make the cover back then — how about Julie (of Julie and and the Tigers, on our 1969 Japanese Rock Cover) or Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette (stars of the very Sixties 1970 film Zabriskie Point)? Other covers might pose problems for some of our younger readers — how about rocker Doug Sahm (1968 and 1971), Warhol film star Joe Dallesandro (1971) and Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate committee (1973)?

But back to the three seen here. Meher Baba was a sort of peace-extolling mystical personal-actualization cult leader (and author of The God Man) who had some interesting ideas about drugs. Pete Townshend followed him for some time (remember “Baba O’Riley”?) and wrote the story accompanying this cover. Mel Lyman was a sort of death-extolling quasi-mystical personal-actualization cult leader (and author of Mirror at the End of the Road) who did some violent things while on drugs. He had some interesting ideas about ideals and hope (“I am going to turn ideals to shit. I am going to shove hope up your ass”) and infrastructure renovation (“I am going to burn down the world. And then I am going to burn the rubble”). Nicholas Johnson was a liberal member of the Federal Communications Commission (and author of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set) who had some interesting ideas about “the extent to which the corporate state dominates [our] lives.”

Jocks Of All Trades

The first photo of an athlete to grace the cover of Rolling Stone was Brian Hamill’s 1971 portrait of Muhammad Ali, which accompanied a story titled “The Second Coming of Muhammad Ali.” As you can see in Hamill’s photograph, the still-undefeated boxer was unscratched — the only scar on his face came from running his bicycle into a wall as a kid — but readers would see the toll of the years in our subsequent 1975 and 1978 cover stories (Ali holds the record for the most covers by an athlete).

Mark Spitz, who broke Olympic swimming records in 1972, was being compared to Burt Reynolds and Tom Jones; America’s newest heartthrob was captured by illustrator Ignacio Gomez. Remember the Bird? Hint: This is not about Charlie Parker or your middle finger. Mark Fidrych, the Detroit Tigers’ all-star pitcher, was Rookie of the Year in 1976. The six-foot-three pitcher’s nickname came from his resemblance to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, he remains the only baseball player to appear on our cover.

The first football player to make the cover was O.J. Simpson, who squeezed in some time in 1977 (between playing football and leaping over moving suitcases and slow-moving elderly people for Hertz commercials) to pose for us. Typically, photographer Leibovitz got him to take his shirt off. Like Mark Fidrych, our last football cover subject, Jim McMahon, would fail to live up to his early promise. The Chicago Bears quarterback, who made the cover after the 1986 Super Bowl, had to sneak out of his hotel room to a secret location for his shoot with photographer Ken Regan (his coach had prohibited him from meeting with the press because of his outspokenness). The cover showed the rebellious “rock & roll quarterback” with his thumbs in his ears and his fingers wagging — as if mocking his coach’s orders.

In This Article: Coverwall

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